Friday, 25 April 2014

Hope, power, love and joy

1 Peter 1:3-9

Wordle: 1 Peter 1:3-9
Peter writes: ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’.

He praises God for what God has done. God has taken people who were spiritually dead and has made us spiritually alive.

And he goes on in this glorious passage to speak of how, because of this new birth, Christians are new people. We were dead, but now we are alive.

1. We have a new hope. 
‘He has given us new birth into a living hope .. into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you.’ (v4)

We cannot separate this hope from the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It is the ground of our hope: because God raised Jesus from the dead, we know that he can raise our bodies.
It is the foretaste, the preview, the model of our resurrection. The bible speaks of the resurrected Jesus as a first fruit of the general resurrection of all believers.

So John writes, ‘When he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’. (1 John 3:2)

When we were spiritually dead, our hope was for this world. We hoped that we would make it, be spotted, become a celebrity, that we would receive a massive inheritance or win the lottery. Or if we gave up those dreams, we hoped that we would be able to gain promotion, get a bigger salary, have children, find love, buy a larger house, enjoy a prosperous retirement.

But, says Peter, now that we have been born again we begin to glimpse the real inheritance that we have. It is not here – it is there. It is not now – it is then.

Imagine the most astonishingly beautiful jewel. It is priceless. It is also exactly right for you – the right shape, the right colours, the right texture. And it being kept in heaven for you; it is your inheritance.

Imagine your own body – now not frail or aching – but beautiful and powerful and glorious. Every bit working not as it did when you were 35, not as it does if you are 35, but as it should do, or should have done when you were 35!

Imagine that you are walking through a jaw-droppingly stunning landscape, with mountains and rivers, fields, gardens and palaces; and the one you are with says, ‘I made it. This is all mine. But all that is mine is now yours’.

Imagine the most incredible feast where there is music and dancing (and yes, even I can dance!) and colour and laughter and every guest is a celebrity. You want to talk to them, only to discover that they are really keen to talk to you;

And now imagine that you look at the one who is walking beside you: and you see someone whose face shines with radiant glory, who holds together gentleness and power, authority and tenderness. And this person looks at you, sees right into you and through you; this person knows you and loves you.

Imagine that – and now listen to this, ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human mind can begin to imagine what God has prepared for those who love him’.

2. We have a new power: 
‘We are shielded by God’s power’ (v5).

When we were spiritually dead, we looked for power in the things of this world. It is all the ‘w’s: weapons, wealth, wisdom or even human will power. I watched the film the Green Lantern. It is the sort of film I love. I live a sad life! It was about these Green aliens who protect the universe from cosmic bad guys, and the source of their power is the will power of all created beings.

But when we become spiritually alive we begin to realise that our power is as nothing compared to the power of the one who created life, and who brought Jesus Christ back from the dead. It is like an 8 year old challenging Vladimir Klitchscko to an arm wrestling match.

And we begin to realise that it is this power which is guarding us.

It won’t stop us going through trials or troubles. Peter is very clear about that. Many of the first believers ‘had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.’ He writes, ‘These have come so that your faith may be proved genuine and may result in praise to God’ (vv6-7).

And we will all go through trials: the trials that come from being part of a fallen human race, of loneliness, anxiety, fear, physical suffering, of growing older and having what we love stripped away from us, of death. But also the trials that come to us because we stand for Jesus Christ – of being honest, of giving up our rights, of suffering for doing good in silence, of speaking at the right time of the hope that we have.

Peter knew only too well of those trials.

When he was younger, he had been challenged. A serving girl asked him if he was a follower of Jesus. If he said ‘Yes’, he would have been mocked, maybe worse. So he said ‘No’. Not just once, but three times. He had been tested, and because he had tried to rely on his own wisdom, on his own will-power, he had been found wanting.

He was heart-broken. But Jesus met him and forgave him.

When he was older, he was invited to a meal by some non-Jewish members of a congregation. He should have gone. But he bottled out. He was more afraid of what the Jewish members of the congregation would say about him, than he was about doing what was right. He had been tested, and he had been found wanting.

I suspect he was heart-broken again. And I suspect that again Jesus met him and forgave him.

But according to tradition, as an old man, he stood in front of the imperial court in Rome. He was ordered to deny that Jesus was the Christ, to deny that Jesus had risen from the dead. But this time it was different. Over the years he had learned to rely on the power of God. So now he did not deny Jesus, even though it meant that they would take him and crucify him.

The power of God is the power that gets us through the trials of life and upholds us so that we remain faithful to him. This is the power which picks us up when we have fallen and puts us again on our feet; this is the power which enables the parent to go on worshipping and serving God even after their child has been taken from them; this is the power which enables a man or woman to forgive, to forgive, to forgive and to go on forgiving; this is the power which enables someone to stand firm for what is right in the face of appalling intimidation;

3. We have a new love 
‘Though you have not seen him you love him’ (v8)

We seek what we love. Spiritually dead people love the things of this world, and so they seek the things of this world: money, status, sex, security, adventure, the satisfaction of physical desires.

But when God makes us alive, he gives us a new heart and he gives us a new love.

We begin to see who the Lord Jesus is and what he has done for us. And we begin to love him. We long to get to know him better, to hear him and we long to see him. We seek him.

In the early C13th, a man called Richard was Bishop of Chichester. He wrote a prayer. It goes as follows:

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits which you have given us,
for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us.
Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
may we know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day.

4. We have a new joy
‘In this you greatly rejoice’ (v6) and a bit later on, ‘and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy’

When we were spiritually dead we rejoiced in the things of this world. When things went well, when we succeeded, we rejoiced. When we suffered, all joy went.

The joy that Peter is writing of here is a joy which sticks with us even when we go through trials. We realise that there is a purpose in our trials.

There are two reasons that we go through trials, says Peter.

The first is so that our faith may be shown to be genuine. If I trust God when things are going well, but ditch him when things get difficult, then it is not real faith. Faith holds onto Jesus when the sun is shining and when the sun is not shining. Real faith is when we walk through the night, and nobody seems to be there, and we cry out – ‘I cannot see you; I cannot feel you. But I know that you are here. And I will go on living for you; I’ll go on trusting in you. I hold on to that hope you have given me.’

The second is so that there will be praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. It is that moment when suddenly the darkness lifts and we see that he is there, that he has been there. And we rejoice with an inexpressible joy.

I hope that you have had glimpses of that joy here and now. One of the puritan divines described it as walking through life together with Jesus, like a child with their father. Sometimes he holds our hand. Sometimes we hear him clearly. At other times we are so wrapped up in ourselves it seems as if he is not there. But then there are those moments when he picks us up, hugs us, tells us he loves us, and then puts us down again.

But even if you have not had glimpses of that joy here and now, please don’t despair or think that you do not belong to him. Because one day you will see him, and you will know him, and you will be filled with an inexpressible joy.

Has God made you spiritually alive? Have you been born again? 

It means that we need to look into ourselves. A man called Calvin wrote, about 500 years ago, that all true knowledge begins with knowledge of God and knowledge of self.

So as you look into yourself,

  • Is there any flicker of hope when you hear about the resurrection of Jesus? 
  • Is there any recognition of your dependence on the power of God, that power which brought Jesus back from the dead, which can hold us even when we fall, and which gives us joy even in the middle of suffering? 
  • Is there any spark of love for this Jesus, who loves you, who died for you and who rose again for you? Do you desire to hear him, see him and to know him better?
  • Is there any sense of the joy of the presence of Jesus, even in our suffering 

Because if there is, then you are spiritually alive and you need to live as someone who is alive.

Maybe today you have begun to realise that you are spiritually dead. You are living for this world and the things of this world, but you are also aware that there is something more. You know that you do want to become spiritually alive. Maybe you’ve tried already to make yourself come alive. You’ve tried to be good, to be religious. Maybe you’ve even prayed ‘the prayer’. But nothing has worked.

Could I suggest a different approach? Recognise that you are spiritually dead. Recognise that dead people cannot make themselves alive. You can’t give yourself a heart transplant; you can’t put the spiritual de-fibrillater on yourself.


So could I suggest that you stop trying to make yourself alive and simply ask God to make you spiritually alive, to work his miracle in you, and to put his Spirit in you.

And if you are spiritually alive, praise God for that. But please live as someone who is spiritually alive.

Don’t put your hope in the things of this world, but in that. For the sake of that world, stuff this world.
Don’t rely on the power of this world, and please do not put your trust in your own wisdom or strength or capacity to work hard or will power, and instead rely on his power.

Your final fulfilment will come from nothing or nobody here, but on that day when we see Jesus face to face.  And then there will be joy and glory and honour and praise.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

An all age talk for Easter Sunday

[Ask children to give out stones to everybody in the congregation, and then use them to act out the first point of the talk]

Today I'm going to ask us to look at our stones and use them to remember two particular stones.

1. The stone at the tomb

We read of two women today: Mary Magdalene and another Mary, the mother of James and Joseph (we don't know who she is) 

They come to 'look at the tomb'. They wanted to see the place where Jesus was buried. 
People do that. It helps them think of the person who has died. 

Let's imagine this is the tomb. 
Can I have a few people to be the stone. [stand them in front of the 'tomb' - and tell them to look rock-like, big and mean - nothing is going to get past them].

We put stones in front of tombs to keep the living from the dead, and the dead from the living. 

On this particular occasion they didn't just put a stone between the body of Jesus and us - they also put a human guard. (some soldiers)

It didn't do any good.

The angel comes and moves the stone. 
(This is the first time an angel has appeared in Matthew's account since the birth of Jesus. We're talking about something new.) 
The guards become like dead men 
(ironic really, because they were meant to be guarding a dead man)

But the angel doesn't move the stone to let Jesus out. 
Jesus has already been raised by God. He is already out. 

The angel moves the stone so that the world can see that Jesus is no longer there. He moves the stone so that when he tells them 'Jesus is risen', they can go into the tomb and see that Jesus in not there. 

What was meant to be a barrier now becomes an entrance.

So hold your stone. It is to help you remember the stone that covered the tomb of Jesus. It was the stone that was meant to tell us that Jesus is dead, to keep Jesus a long way away. But it has now become a stone on which an angel sits and tells us that Jesus Christ is risen.

But I'd like to suggest that this stone stands for a second thing.

A few months after these events, a man called Peter - one of the first followers of Jesus - prayed for a lame man, and the lame man was healed. The authorities are concerned. They arrest Peter and ask him how this has happened. Peter replies, 
"Let it be known to all of you ... that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone." (Acts 4:10)

2. This stone is to remind us that the risen Jesus is the stone, the foundation on whom we build our lives. 

The women begin to learn this:

a) They are given a task to do. The angel tells them to go and tell his followers that Jesus is alive, and that they are to go to Galilee where they will meet Jesus. 

It is an amazing message. Jesus is alive, and you can meet him! There is somebody who is bigger than death. 
But it is also a very scary message! The women think, 'What will people say when we tell them that the tomb is empty and that Jesus is alive? They won't believe us. They'll tell us we are mad. And what if Jesus doesn't turn up when his followers go to Galilee? 

b) The women do go - and notice: they haven't yet met the risen Jesus. All they have got to go on is a fact they know: the tomb is empty, and the word of an angel, a messenger of God. 

But it is when they go that Jesus comes and meets with them. 

It is when we really begin to build our life on the foundation of the risen Jesus, when we begin to do what he wants us to do, that we begin to meet with the risen Jesus, and life becomes both scary and joyful. 

If we are going to build our lives on anything, then we need to learn that it is solid and reliable. 

Think of the pillars in the church. They need to rest on solid ground if they are going to hold up that roof.
[Illustration with dad and small child. Ask dad to go on shoulders of child. Then 
put child on shoulders of dad.] The child learns that they can trust the foundation of their dad.

We are not the community who meet to remember a dead founder, to read what he taught and try to live like him. That is foolish. Gandhi, Mandela, Luther-King: there are many other equally inspiring people who we could imitate. 

The Church is the community of people who are not seeking to imitate the dead Jesus, but who are learning to build our lives on the risen Jesus. 

Yes, you may be someone who thinks it is a good story but it can't be true. You may be someone who hopes that it is true. And it is fantastic that you are here.

But the church is the community of people who don't just hope that it is true, but who build their lives on the rock, on the foundation of the risen Lord Jesus. 
And the church is the community of people who come together to meet with the risen Jesus. 

And when we do that life becomes full of joy but, if we are faithful to Jesus, can also be very scary.

So, I know rocks have many different meanings in the bible, but could I ask you to take this stone home, and use it specifically to remind you

1. Of the stone in front of the tomb that was rolled away - that tells us that Jesus is not there - and of the angel who sits on that stone and tells us that he is risen.
2. Of Jesus, who is the rock on whom we build our lives. 

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The sixth cry of Jesus from the cross: It is finished.

We turn now to what was the sixth cry of Jesus from the cross.

‘It is finished’ (John 19:30)

I guess it could have been a cry of anguish – the whole thing was a waste of time, but the farce is ended.
It might have been a cry of relief – the suffering is over.

But we are to hear this as a cry of victory.

‘It is finished. The task that I have been given has been accomplished.'

John writes, ‘When Jesus had received the drink ..’.
He has already mentioned this drink in John 18:11. There Jesus commands Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”

What is this cup?
In the Old Testament we are told that the cup is the cup of the wrath of God, of God’s hatred against sin.
So Psalm 75:8, ‘For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs’.
Jeremiah 25:17, ‘So I took the cup from the Lord’s hand, and made all the nations to whom the Lord sent me to drink it: Jerusalem .. its kings and officials, to make them a desolation and a waste, a hissing and a curse’

What we have here is mystery beyond understanding.

Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who was there in the beginning with God, becomes in his love a human being and lives a perfect life. But out of love for us he chose to drink this cup that his Father was giving him – this cup of the divine wrath, this cup of his own wrath.

In one of the Harry Potter novels, Professor Dumbledore needs to destroy a particular object that is rooted in evil. But it is at the bottom of a deep bowl, and the only way to get to it is for him to drink the water. But that water contains all the foul fruit of evil: fear, hatred, self-loathing, bitterness, resentment, twisted desires. And he has to drink it to the very bottom.

That is a story.

But what happened to Jesus was no story.

When he hung on the cross, he took into himself all that foul water of our evil, and he took onto himself the wrath of God against that evil. He took into himself utter alienation from God, paralysing despair and eternal loneliness.

And now, having freely drunk that cup which the Father has given him, having drunk it to the very dregs, he cries out ‘It is finished’.

It is finished – I have done what I came to do. The requirements of the law have been fulfilled; prophecy has been accomplished. I am the sacrificial lamb. I am the shepherd who gave my life for the sheep. I have laid down my life so that my enemies might become my friends.

‘He hell in hell laid low;
Made sin, he sin o’erthrew;
Bowed to the grave, destroyed it so,
And death, by dying, slew’ (SW Gandy)

They found a receipt from a little after the time of Jesus. On it is the word, ‘tetelestai’. It is the same word that Jesus cries out, and it means, ‘the price has been paid’.

That is the ground of our Faith.

True faith is not about gritting your teeth and trying to get yourself to believe or do three impossible things before breakfast.
True faith is not about believing in your ability to do whatever you want

True faith is about you and me, in whatever pit that we find ourselves in, putting our hand in the hand of Jesus and allowing him to pull us out. It is the conviction that Jesus Christ, out of love for us, paid the price – and did it all. Because he drank the cup, we are forgiven, washed clean, made new people, given a new heart and adopted into the family of God.

In some religions you pay for your sins with karma. You get what you deserve, if not now - then. It is the most terrifying teaching.
In other religions, and this is what most people think Christianity teaches, you do good works, and you try to be nice to God, in order to cancel out your bad deeds: although in the end whether it is enough depends on the will of God.

But those who, in faith, turn to Jesus do not need to prove themselves to God, or to do good works in order to wipe out their bad deeds. They know that they can’t. They know that the very fact that we are trying to get ourselves right with God by doing good stuff is, in itself, a bad thing. We are putting our trust in ourselves and in our ability to be good, rather than putting our trust in God. We are trying to justify ourselves.

So those who turn to Jesus and yet still try to persuade God to forgive them, or do good things to make God like them, are like the person who is late for a meeting and who has lost their car key. They search everywhere: upstairs, downstairs, outside in the garden, on the pavement. They blame their wife, the children, the man who came to read the electricity meter, the dog, the hamster. But they can’t find their keys. And when in desperation they have gone upstairs for the sixth time, and in the red mist just as they are about to order the mass execution of their family for moving the key, they put their hand in their pocket – and discover that what they had been searching for, they had all along. And they look rather stupid.

If we have turned to Jesus; if we have put our trust in him, then we are looking for what we already have: forgiveness, justification, approval, significance, security, freedom, validation, righteousness, love.

It is all ours because the job has been done; it is accomplished; he drank the cup; the price is paid. It is finished.